Cautious Britain goes tactical on the 'Battlenet'

The Internet has finally left the air-conditioned environment of the office and arrived among the mud and blood of the battlefield.

Britain has lagged behind the US, France and Germany in plugging its frontline and support troops into the "tactical Internet". But on Monday a new organisation will be launched within the Ministry of Defence to oversee "digitisation", which will be essential to operating with Nato allies. The thinking is that the side able to respond to information fastest will win. Well, maybe.

Britain's caution about the "Battlenet" may have been wise: in April last year US forces tried out the "tactical Internet" against an old-fashioned opposition force and lost. The reason? They spent too much time staring at computer screens and not enough shooting at the enemy. An armoured- corps officer pointed out that his tank commanders would be too busy avoiding tree stumps or looking out for the enemy to pay much attention to the waves of information on their screens. It seems he had a point.

"Britain's allies are already under way with battlefield management systems, and the likelihood of coalition operations demands that Britain does the same," Colonel Cedric Burton of the Ministry of Defence told the International Defense Review. (IDR). Brigadier Martin Lance has been made chief of "land command information systems" - the Battlenet.

The US established an Army Digitisation Office a year ago. The world's armed forces have a plethora of different command, control and communications systems, developed since the late 1970s, but until now nobody paid much attention to getting all the different systems to talk to each other.

Digitisation means developing a network of rugged computers which will talk to each other, passing information up and down the chain of command and sideways to supporting and adjacent units. Rupert Pengelly, IDR editor, said: "It is just what people do in their offices these days translated on to the battlefield." All commanders on the Battlenet are fed information from command levels below them and from organisations either side.

The information, passed in coded form between specially "ruggedised" computers, can tell them the state of the units under their command or, at the flick of a switch, give them the big picture from satellites or unmanned air vehicles as a vast enemy offensive wheels round the other side of the hill. There is no need to send a "contact report" when you stumble on the enemy - the Battlenet does it automatically.

Logisticians can instantly find out how much ammunition the artillery has fired, or is firing, and, without being asked, direct ammunition to where it is needed first. Many older officers fear there will be too much information, but Mr Pengelly was more optimistic.

"Soldiers nowadays were brought up on video games. They're very quick to discard what they don't need," he said.

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